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Astronauts get the green light for launch

THREE astronauts set to make history by doubling the permanent population of the International Space Station received the go-ahead yesterday for launch from Russia's space complex in Kazakhstan.

Severe winds at the launch site and an unconfirmed report of a journalist being diagnosed with swine flu had raised last-minute concerns that the flight might be canceled.

But Russian space officials gave final clearance for the launch of the Soyuz spacecraft that will ferry Canadian astronaut Bob Thirsk, Russian cosmonaut Roman Romanenko, and Belgium's Frank De Winne to the orbiting laboratory.

Liftoff is scheduled for today at 4:34pm local time from Russia's Baikonur cosmodrome, located in the steppe of Kazakhstan. The Russian-made Soyuz TMA-15 capsule is expected to dock with the space station about two days later.

Thirsk called the expansion from a three-person to a six-person crew a "milestone" and said one of their goals was "to prove the station can support six people for a long duration."

Living space on the ISS has been expanded over the past few months to accommodate more astronauts. NASA spokesman Rob Navius said that in the future the ISS could take as many as 13 people onboard.

The crew will burnish the international credentials of the ISS, currently occupied by United States astronaut Michael Barratt, Russia's Gennady Padalka and Japan's Koichi Wakata.

Thirsk said a primary objective of the mission will be to assess how well a large number of people live together in the confines of a spacecraft.

"What we'll do over the next months will be to prepare for future space exploration," De Winne said.

Thirsk, 55, will become the first Canadian to spend six months in space, easily outstripping other Canadian astronauts. In another first, De Winne, 48, will become the first European to take command of the ISS in October, taking over from Padalka.


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